Even though we loved our time in Kenya, since Ruth and I subscribe to the not again school of travel (see Two Schools of Traveling Thought) we really wanted to see another part of this vast continent. One of the pleasures of a working vacation is being able to pull out the atlas and decide for yourself where to go rather than having that destination be selected for you by a company, funding agency, or professional society.
Our Kenyan friends and colleagues told us that if we enjoyed our three-month stay in East Africa we really should consider a trip to Zimbabwe, the country called Rhodesia until 1980 when it won its independence from Great Britain in a bloody civil war. After reading about its rich culture, natural beauty, and superb historical sites, Ruth and I decided that a working vacation in Zimbabwe would be an excellent way to relive the delights of our Kenyan safari, now many years distant, but with different places to explore and new people to meet. Not long after sending email inquiring about summer teaching opportunities at the University of Zimbabwe, the best university in the country, I received a reply from Rob Borland, chair of the computer science department, inviting me to teach at UZ during the coming winter quarter–oops I forgot about that Southern Hemisphere thing yet again!
At that time Zimbabwe was the success story of sub-Saharan Africa, and its capital, Harare, was one of the loveliest cities on the continent. This is hard to fathom given conditions there today—famine, cholera, hyperinflation, and civil unrest—all thanks to a once-benevolent president, Robert Mugabe, who devolved into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance of public dissent. (Conditions are actually much worse. In a recent article in the New York Times
columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for most of the inhabitants has ceased to exist.”)
However, in 1992 things were quite different and Harare was a charming city of pedestrian malls, upscale shopping, and outdoor cafes, all frequented by a large, thriving black middle class. With its broad downtown avenues shaded by Jacaranda trees and lined with busy stores, it would be hard for most Americans to believe they were in Africa. Rather than the images of ramshackle housing and malnourished children that routinely fill our newspapers and airwaves, you would encounter Africans lunching in bistros and driving late-model American and European cars on modern, well paved city streets. It was a city that, at least in 1992, would utterly shatter your stereotype that all of sub-Saharan Africa looks like a Sally Struthers public service announcement for “Save the Children.”
This shattering of stereotypes is another important reason to travel, especially to unfamiliar regions and places where your imaginings are far removed from the reality. For example, a working vacation in a country like Turkey (or Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Malaysia) will end those misconceptions about Islam and day-to-day life in a modern Muslim society–exactly what happened to my Classics professor friend as described in Official Confirmation. A long-term stay in a city like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore will certainly change your perception that India has nothing to offer visitors but crowds, poverty, disease, and privation. The friendliness and warmth of the residents of Nairobi (including those in the slums of Kibera) would go a long way toward ending the misguided view of Africa as nothing but tribal hatreds and violent crime.
So, on May 26th, 1992, Ruth and I set sail from the Minneapolis International Airport for a three-month teaching sojourn in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe but not before making a couple of fascinating stops along the way, in Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa–exactly as detailed in Getting From Point A to Point B in Style.